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5 Tips For Leading Strong-Willed People (Like Me)

Have you ever tried to lead someone who didn’t necessarily want to be led? I’m specifically referring to strong-willed people.

Here’s a reality of dealing with people. The same children that were labeled “strong-willed” by their parents often grow up to be strong-willed adults. Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one.

(I know a few personally. The one I know best is me!)

Yet, have you ever tried to lead one?

It’s not easy.

In fact, I’m convinced many strong-willed people end up leading simply because they couldn’t be led. Often they didn’t need to lead – at least not until they matured – but no one ever learned how to lead them. So, they struck out on their own. (Be sure to read my closing note if this is you.)

I’m not an expert on leading strong-willed people, but I have some ideas — since I’m speaking to my own kind.

5 tips for leading strong-willed people:

Give clear expectations

Everyone responds best when they know what is expected of them. That is especially true of those with strong opinions of their own. Or, shall I say — those of us more stubborn people. If you have a definite idea of how something needs to be done and you leave it as an undefined gray area — we will redefine things our way.

Keep this in mind with strong-willed people: Rules should be few and they should make sense. Otherwise, they’ll likely be resisted or broken more often.

Give freedom within the boundaries

Once the guidelines and expectations are established, allow people to express themselves freely within them. That’s important for all of us, but especially for strong-willed people.

Strong-willed people need to know they can make some decisions. Furthermore, that they have freedom to explore on their own.

Be consistent

Strong willed people need boundaries, but they will test them. They want to know the limits of their freedom. Keep in mind they are head-strong. We’ve even labeled them strong-willed. They aren’t the rule followers on the team.

Again there shouldn’t be too many, but make sure the rules you have are consistent in application. Therefore, if it’s worth making a rule make sure it’s worth implementing.

Pick your battles

This is huge. Strong-willed people can be the backbone of a team. They can be bullish for a cause, highly loyal, dogmatic, and tenacious towards achieving a vision. What leader doesn’t want more people like that on their team?

But those same qualities can be where the problems start also.

They will often fight for the sake of a fight. They’ll push back just for the sake of an argument – which they are not intimidated about having.

Don’t cross a strong-willed person over issues of little importance to the overall vision of the organization. (But read my closing statement.) Avoid backing them into the proverbial corner having to defend themselves over issues, which in the scheme of things, really doesn’t matter. If you back a strong-willed person in a corner they will usually fight back. Often everyone loses in these cases.

Of course, this assumes you value the person enough that you want them to remain on your team. If not, I’ve got another post for that somewhere.

Respect their opinions and individualities

Strong-willed people ultimately want to be heard (as all people do). They aren’t weird because they sometimes seem immovable. But they do resist leadership most when their voice is silenced. Learn what matters to them and give credence to their opinions and you’ll find a loyal teammate.

Closing note: 

When I first published this post a few years ago I left out an important point someone noticed in the comments. I’ll choose to close in this post with this point. Being strong-willed (as I’ve already admitted I can be) is not an excuse for bullying in the workplace (or home, or on the internet, or anywhere else). I’m not making excuses for bad behavior here. Just as I’ve written other posts about working with other personality types, such as introversion or creatives, these are tips on working with people who happen to be strong-willed so we can ultimately build healthy teams.

And a most important word to the strong-willed person – sometimes it is you (and me) who will be the one needing to change to build the healthy team. A strong-will does not make us always right.

Be honest: Are you strong-willed? How do you like to be led?

Check out my leadership podcast where we discuss issues of leadership nuggets in a practical way. Plus, check out the other Lifeway Leadership Podcasts.

Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Jim Pemberton says:

    These are great points! I don't have anything to add to them except to say that strong-willed people tend to respect someone who has good principles and is willing to stick by them. Often strong-willed people test the rules not to test the rules, but to test the rule-maker. How important are these rules, really?

    I don't know whether I'm strong-willed or not. It doesn't matter to me. I do want to say something of encouragement for leaders of strong-willed people. Many leaders dread dealing with a strong-willed subordinate. The advice in your article here is appropriate because strong-willed people have a pattern that they largely won't vary from. I've heard from many self-aware strong-willed people that they are driven to win and have a hard time tempering that impulse. That means that "strong-willed" is a bit of a misnomer. They are aggressively-willed but don't necessarily have the self-control it takes to keep it in check. Good parenting can help a strong-willed child with that, but we don't get to parent them. Spiritual maturation and self-awareness can help an adult with that. That's what we can help with. I've found that some level of leadership counseling from a thoughtful leader can help a strong-willed subordinate develop a measure of self-control. Walk them through the leadership process. Teach them how to make meaningful goals. Teach them how to pick their battles for the purpose of achieving those goals. At the end of the proverbial day, you're likely to enjoy coming to work to see your strong-willed subordinate grow into a capable leader who is self-aware and self-controlled. Be the coach they remember fondly.